Syria's Druze reject Assad's call to serve

Beirut (AFP) –


Nearly eight years into the Syrian war, Selim still refuses to perform his military service, just like many fellow Druze from Sweida province rejecting the regime's conscription call.

"I don't want to get involved in the Syrian bloodbath," said the 27-year-old, who gave a pseudonym for fear of reprisals.

The Sweida region south of Damascus is the Syrian heartland of the country's Druze minority which follows a secretive offshoot of Islam.

After the anti-government protests that sparked Syria's war in 2011, the Druze obtained a de facto exemption from military service in exchange for their tacit support of the regime.

Last week however, President Bashar al-Assad urged the minority, which accounted for around three percent of Syria's pre-war population, to send its young men to the army.

After rotating out some very long-serving conscripts, the regime is looking for fresh blood to beef up its ranks and exercise real control over the swathes of land it reconquered from insurgents and jihadists.

Assad's appeal came after the government helped release, earlier this month, a large group of Druze civilians who had been taken hostage by the Islamic State group in Sweida.

His call appeared to terminate a deal whereby the Druze were allowed to organise their own militia rather than serve in the army, but its implementation could prove tricky.

- 'Daesh or the army' -

"I don't want to have to kill the people of Hama, the people of Homs or any other province, for the sake of keeping one man in power," Selim told AFP by phone from Sweida.

"The army is your grave," said the young man, explaining that the lack of a time limit on conscription during war means recruits will not be able to know when they can return home.

To be on the safe side, Selim never leaves Sweida, a province in southern Syria that borders Jordan and where the Syrian security services have a limited presence.

Young Druze men have in recent years enlisted in local militia to protect their region from jihadists and the regime's interests.

In July, Selim was among hundreds of other residents who took up arms to pin back IS after a series of attacks that left at least 260 people dead.

During the assault, the deadliest to have hit the Druze community since the start of the war, the jihadists kidnapped about 30 people, mainly women and children.

The last of the surviving hostages were released on November 8, leading to Assad's demand that the Druze contribute to the national war effort.

"The regime is trying to tell us: it's Daesh or the military service," said Selim, using a acronym for the Islamic State group.

Khattar Abu Diab, a Paris-based professor of political science and a specialist in Druze affairs, said Assad was attempting to intimidate the minority.

"He wants to use the residents of Sweida as cannon fodder for future battles," he said.

- Punishment -

Sweida was mostly spared by the deadly Syrian conflict and only faced sporadic jihadist attacks they managed to repel.

Residents on several occasions in 2014 besieged detention centres to obtain the release of men who had been rounded up to join the army.

At the time the central government was at its weakest, stretched very thin on many fronts and had humoured the Druze not to risk opening up another.

That level of autonomy now comes at a cost for Sweida, where security is all but guaranteed by the presence of the Syrian police.

Some residents see a deliberate government effort to maintain a level of chaos in the province.

"The regime uses other means to punish Sweida: the Islamic State instead of barrel bombs, crime and disorder instead of arrests," activist Hamam al-Khatib said.

According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor, around 30,000 Druze men are liable for military service.

The group's head, Rami Abdel Rahman, alleged that the government told Druze leaders it would remove the IS threat if they promise to support the conscription drive.

IS fighters who had been holding out in the volcanic area of Tulul al-Safa, between Damascus and Sweida, finally retreated last week after heavy regime bombardment and a government-negotiated deal.

Regardless of the agreements being cut in Damascus and by their leaders, Druze youngsters willing to serve in the national army are hard to come by.

"The war just keeps going on... we are not killing machines," said Uday al-Khatib, a 25-year-old Sweida resident.

"Yes, the Sweida youth don't do military service, I'm one of them, but we are the ones who pushed back IS and the army didn't help us," he told AFP in a phone interview.